Rights activists say that perhaps no group of escapees has ever made it farther from the North only to be dragged back. Some non-governmental organizations put part of the blame on the South Korean government, saying its officials underestimated the willingness of Laos and North Korea to work together and failed to meet with the group during the 18 days between its detention and the hand-off to the North.
South Korea says it was notified by the pastor on the day the group was first detained, but that Laos never granted its diplomats a meeting with the escapees.
A winding path to freedom
Laos is an oblong landlocked country of just 6 million people, bordering China on its north and wedged along the sides by Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. Its capital city has a small community of Koreans, nearly all from the South, and a half-dozen Korean restaurants. Both Koreas have embassies here, and the North’s has a glass display case by its entrance showing photos of Kim Jong Un during various public outings around Pyongyang, including a visit with schoolkids.
Laos has been the preferred route of nearly half of the 25,000 who’ve successfully fled the impoverished and authoritarian North, and its critical role on that escape route highlights the convoluted path defectors take from one Korea to the other.
The Korean peninsula is divided by a nearly impassable demilitarized zone, a border strung with barbed wire, peppered with mines and patrolled on both sides by militaries. As a result, North Koreans who want to reach the South, where they are granted citizenship, must take the long route.
They start by crossing one of two shallow rivers — the Yalu or Tumen — into China, either swimming across or walking over ice during winter. They try to avoid the watchtowers and North Korean guards who have occasional shoot-to-kill orders.
In China, they are far from safe. Beijing views North Koreans as “economic migrants,” not valid asylum seekers, and repatriates them to the North, where they are deemed traitors and subject to re-education camps, prison, torture, and sometimes execution. The Chinese policy, the United Nations says, violates an international convention against returning refugees to a country in which their freedom or lives will be threatened.